‘The Mathematics of this Purgatory’:
It is a fictionalized attempt to answer the true-life mystery of what became of the men who sailed with Captain John Franklin aboard two ships— ‘Erebus;’ and ‘Terror’ – which set out in 1845 to find the opening of the then-fabled Northwest Passage; and which ended in failure sometime in 1848.
It is a tale of high adventure among men who were almost made of iron, enduring conditions that the modern mind can barely comprehend; and at the same time is a look at what survival skills they might have learned from the native Esquimaux peoples if they could have gotten over their innate Royal Navy arrogance.
It is a story of horror and hardship painted on an icy, giant canvas that throws in scenes of mutilation, torture and cannibalism as well as straight sex, homosexual sex and mystical, inter-racial sex.
Oh yeah; and while we’re at it, let’s have a bloody great intelligent killing-machine that kind of resembles a gigantic polar bear and may or may not be of supernatural origins.
So right away I’m hearing you say: Enough! I’m sold. Let me at it! But just hold your sled-dogs there a moment.
Weighing in at 940 pages in the Bantam Books paperback edition, this 2007 novel from American science fiction and horror novelist Dan Simmons is recommended only for those who like their reading to be detailed. Detailed and long. And The Terror is nothing if not that. In fact, more than one reviewer has likened the obsession with Navy minutiae to the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brien.
Personally, I’ve never gotten through one of that well-loved gentleman’s books — while I simply couldn’t put down The Terror.
The Illusion of Open Water
It really is a remarkable attempt to make the reader go every step of the way with the horror of what it must have been like to be amongst Captain Franklin’s crew. It makes for grim reading as it dawns on both the reader and the men that with the ice showing no sign of thawing and as they remain in one spot while months turn into years, that they will probably not survive this.
And a personal note. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen most of the places on the globe that I’ve wanted to, but several remain:
Despite having been in Mexico several times, I’ve never been to Zihuatanejo on the west coast. I’d just like to go there because it’s where Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman went at the end of The Shawshank Redemption…and Robbins made it sound magical.
I’d like to see Florence. I’d like to see Cross Plains, Texas.
And I did once want to visit Alaska or at least somewhere near the Arctic Circle; but after reading The Terror that destination is well and truly off the Bucket List. I swear, I was bloody freezing the whole time I was reading it. And I guess that means that Simmons succeeded in at least one thing he set out to do.
However, if you like a story that goes along in a seamless fashion and is all tied up at the end with a giant red bow then you are going to want to give this a miss. That’s not a spoiler – I loved this book, remember – but if you are that kind of reader, then it’s not fair to ask you to get to around page 800 only to find that it is turning into something that you don’t want. And which will possibly leave you feeling frustrated and betrayed.
The Terror is a book that can’t be pigeon holed. Mr. Simmons’s dedication page is both baffling and misleading. He cites what seems like the whole cast of the 1939 version of The Thing from Another World, along with its writer, producer and director – and yet, apart from the Arctic setting, it seems to me to have little in common with that classic, although at least a bit more with John Carpenter’s 1982 remake.
The fact is that there is actually comparatively little of the horror element at all. Oh, there is a lot of horror – but it is of the kind that happens to men who are bleeding to death from scurvy and going mad from isolation and hardship. As to the gigantic, apparently invulnerable creature that is stalking them across the frozen ice plains, I suspect that if you took every appearance of it over the range of this vast book then they would barely come to a couple of dozen pages.
I think that The Terror is a quite extraordinary novel. I’ve always found Simmons a bit hit-and-miss but here he excels in a tale where relatively little real action happens, considering the length. There are very few set pieces, although a brilliant exception is an icebound re-enactment of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. If nothing else, the use of colour in an often unrelieved setting of whiteness is as startling as the men’s repeated disappointments when searching for open water.
And Simmons’s meat-and-potatoes story-telling is perfect. You won’t come away thinking over marvelous prose passages — but if it grabs you initially then you will keep reading.
I suspect that Simmons had to fight strongly to retain his vision in the way that he wanted it. For this reader, just to give one example, he doesn’t integrate the beliefs of the Inuit tribespeople in a way that made them particularly digestible to me; but I do admire him for sticking to his guns.
There’s also a strange little reference to global warming that almost – almost – pulled me out of the mood.
Overall, though, if you have the time and the fortitude to spend a considerable amount of time with men who are dying a horrible death then The Terror is recommended.